Capitol Alert

Ballot order scrutinized in 39th Assembly District race

Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra during the first day of session at the Capitol on Dec. 3, 2012 .
Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra during the first day of session at the Capitol on Dec. 3, 2012 . The Sacramento Bee

Did ballot order cost an incumbent assemblyman his seat?

That’s one theory promoted by those trying to decipher one of the 2014 election’s big upsets: Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-Los Angeles, a prolific fundraiser rumored to harbor aspirations of becoming the next Assembly speaker, conceded his race to a virtually unknown challenger.

It was a sure thing that voters in the 39th Assembly District, where a majority of voters are registered Democrats, would elect a fellow Democrat. Because of that liberal bent the general election featured two Democrats: Bocanegra and Patty Lopez, a self-described “educational community representative.” This was only the second election cycle allowing two Democrats to advance to the general under new top-two primary rules.

Despite boasting the name recognition that comes with incumbency and raising over $1 million, Bocanegra currently trails Lopez by 419 votes after having outpolled her by nearly 40 points in the primary. The fact that Lopez appeared on the ballot before him could be partially to blame, a theory laid out in LA Weekly.

While ballot order varies from district to district, reflecting a random alphabetized drawing conducted by the California Secretary of State’s office, Democratic candidates appeared above Republicans in every race on the page of 39th district ballots featuring Lopez and Bocanegra. Then came the two-Democrat Assembly race. Lopez’s name came before Bocanegra’s.

So people attempting to vote Democratic Party down the line may have chosen Lopez without realizing the name below her, Bocanegra, was also a Democrat, according to political data wonk Paul Mitchell.

“For dozens of years, these voters have expected to see races that are a Democrat versus a Republican,” Mitchell said. “It’s very believable that voters were expecting to see a Democrat versus Republican race there and saw a Democrat and selected (her).”

While Bocanegra’s chief of staff, who is currently on leave from his legislative duties to work on a separate campaign, acknowledged that ballot order was “certainly a factor,” he rejected the notion that it had been decisive.

“I think that anybody who attributes the closeness of the election to one particular factor is probably simplifying things,” said Ben Golombek.

Editor’s note: This post was updated at 3:33 p.m. on Nov. 24, 2014 to reflect Bocanegra’s conceding.

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.